Just what do CIOs do all day, anyway?

Tech chiefs talk about the reality of life at the top, and how best to use their time.
Written by Mark Samuels, Contributor
Image: iStock

At a time when CMOs and CDOs are taking more responsibility for technology purchasing, IT leaders are under pressure to prove their value to the rest of the senior team.

ZDNet speaks to the experts in order to discover the significance of technology leadership to today's businesses. What do CIOs do all day and why does a great business still need a top-level IT chief?

Getting out in the business to build brand IT

Richard Corbridge, CIO for the Health Service Executive (HSE) in Ireland, recognises the role of technology director has been through a rapid transformation. Rather than simply thinking about which tools and services might be useful for colleagues, CIOs must step outside the datacentre and sell the benefits of brand IT.

"Being a successful CIO today is much more than simply dealing with IT strategy," says Corbridge. "It's about people and it's about being transparent about what the technology team is doing internally and externally, in terms of its work with the rest of the business."

Corbridge says CIOs who get the message right create enthusiasm within the IT department -- and across the rest of the organisation -- for the work of the technology team. "The CIO role today is much more about leadership, communication and being a figurehead than it is about a detailed focus on technology," he says.

"You need to be able to interact with your peers, go back and give direction and then be certain that your trusted project managers are saying the right things about your aims to the rest of the organisation. You cannot be part of business delivery unless you understand the wider aims of the organisation."

As well as being technology chief of the HSE, Corbridge is chief executive of eHealth Ireland, an organisation set up to help deliver innovative technology to help improve healthcare. The ley lesson from his dual role, he says, is that interactions with the senior team must be pitched at the right level.

"You can't expect to turn up to a board meeting as a modern CIO and just talk about technology," he says. "When we meet as an executive group, I need to offer my opinion, support the decisions that are being made by the business and make sure that I'm contributing towards the core delivery aims of the organisation."

Mark Bramwell, CIO at Said Business School, is another executive who says IT leaders must be able to step outside their comfort zone and engage with senior executives at all levels. Style, says Bramwell, is crucial and he likes to be open, to be transparent and to communicate as often as possible.

"The role of CIO is now less of a technologist and more of a relationship builder," he says. "The ability to build relationships across all levels of business is crucial to success. CIOs must have knowledge of all business decisions in order to talk on an informed basis."

Bramwell sees the CIO role as a privileged position. The embedded nature of modern technology means IT leaders have a rooftop view across the functional lines of an organisation. Bramwell says IT leaders should use this broad outlook to identify and influence cross-organisational opportunities in order to connect people and departments.

"It's a great facilitating role, but few CIOs do that really well," he says. "I think it's equally important that you educate and inform. You don't need someone else to support your cause -- if you're doing your job well, you should be engaged and having grown-up conversations. If you're embedded in how the business operates, you will be able to demonstrate value in all areas."

Focusing on the right timesplit as a modern CIO

Former Tullow Oil CIO Andrew Marks says great IT leaders split their time three ways. As much as 60 per cent of the IT leader's time should be spent on people issues, such as communicating, mentoring and networking, with a quarter allocated to business improvement concerns, including strategy, leadership and digital transformation.

The final ten to fifteen per cent of the IT leader's working day should be given over to IT performance management issues, such as making sure projects are on-track and ensuring that service level agreements are performing as anticipated.

What is noticeable about Marks' time split is that he leaves no room for the day-to-day running of IT.

The explanation, he says, is that the successful CIO eschews operational concerns and passes responsibility for IT management to trusted deputies. "The IT function performs better when CIOs fulfil an external-facing role," says Marks. "For this to happen, the technology chief needs a great team that he or she can trust to work on the day-to-day tasks related to business improvement and performance management."

The basic fact of the matter, says Marks, is that a significant majority of the modern CIO's role involves soft skills. IT leaders must be great communicators, yet he estimates as few as 15 per cent of current technology chiefs recognise the change in balance, from systems stewardship to people management.

"The modern CIO probably has to be more extrovert than the traditional IT director. To succeed, you will need a different, more engaged personality type - and you will need to make sure that you will not get exhausted fulfilling this role," says Marks.

Chris Chandler, head of the CIO practice at recruitment specialist La Fosse Associates, agrees that the days are long gone when the role of an IT leader was purely a demand manager for internal customers. Rather than focusing on day-to-day concerns, evidence from his firm suggests CIOs need entrepreneurial zeal.

"With technological and digital innovation recognised as one of the top three strategic goals by most organisations, the role of the CIO is as much about seeking and identifying new technologies that can transform not just how the business runs but what the business actually does," says Chandler.

"CIOs and CTOs are now being sought by organisations for their ability to innovate, disrupt and act as an operational entrepreneur. Consequentially, CIOs are spending an increasing amount of time on investigating what technologies are on the horizon and how best to introduce them."

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